'Munich' is a cautionary tale, told cautiously

Steven Spielberg is one of the few film directors who can make just about any movie he chooses, and so "Munich," which is about the aftermath of the 1972 Olympics massacre, presumably speaks for him in a very direct and personal way. It's one of his "serious" films, stretching back to "Amistad" and "Schindler's List." Unlike most directors who attempt politically charged themes, however, Spielberg is first and foremost an entertainer with a full arsenal of cinematic skills.

This facility of his cuts both ways. On the one hand, it means that great and necessary subjects - the Holocaust, the slave trade - are brought to life in ways that are far more vivid than the usual waxworks approach. But it also means that Spielberg sometimes lets his moviemaker's instincts override the richest resonances in the material. Technique trumps depth.

There is another problem with Spielberg's serious side, and it is especially pertinent to "Munich": He has a reformer's instincts, which are admirable in a politician but can be detrimental to an artist, who almost by definition sees life in more complex colors.

As a piece of filmmaking, "Munich" is rarely less than gripping. As a political essay, as a brief against despair, it is far less convincing. Spielberg, along with his screenwriters Tony Kushner and Eric Roth, wants to show us the way out of the cycle of violence in the Middle East, and in essence his answer is, "Give peace a chance."

The movie begins with the storming of the Olympic Village dormitory housing the Israelis by the extremist Palestinian group Black September. Two athletes are killed and nine are taken hostage in an effort to secure the release of 200 Palestinian prisoners held by Israel. Twenty hours later, after a botched rescue attempt by German police, the nine hostages, as well as five terrorists and a German policeman, are killed.

Because the events unfolded live on global TV, the Munich tragedy is often referred to as the beginning of modern-day terror tactics, where media coverage is all-important. The official Israeli response was the Air Force bombing of PLO bases in Syria and Lebanon. Unofficially, Prime Minister Golda Meir dispatched a five-man commando unit, dubbed "the Wrath of God," to assassinate the surviving 11 Palestinian ringleaders of the massacre (as outlined in George Jonas's book "Vengeance," upon which "Munich" is based). It is their story that Spielberg chooses to tell.

The commandos are led by Avner (Eric Bana), a former Mossad agent and bodyguard to Meir, who leaves his pregnant wife to team with a diverse quartet that includes Steve (Daniel Craig), the most rabidly gung-ho of the bunch - "the only blood that matters to me is Jewish blood" - and Robert (Matthieu Kassovitz), a Belgian bomb expert whose growing qualms about the human cost of the operation are a harbinger of things to come. Their operations carry them across Paris, Beirut, Tel Aviv, Athens, Geneva, and Frankfurt to hunt their targets down.

From a purely dramatic standpoint, this grisly process of systematic elimination has an "And Then There Were None" quality, but Spielberg for the most part relieves the roteness by focusing on Avner's expanding crisis of conscience. The only native Israeli in the unit, he is clearly intended to represent the conflicted Israeli soul.

And no doubt the filmmakers' conflicted souls as well - Kushner, the playwright of "Angels in America" and "Homebody/Kabul," has edited the book "Wrestling with Zion: Progressive Jewish-American Responses to the Palestinian/Israeli Conflict"; and Spielberg, in his one official statement about the film, said: "By experiencing how the implacable resolve of these men to succeed in their mission slowly gave way to troubling doubts about what they were doing, I think we can learn something important about the tragic standoff we find ourselves in today."

But can we really? As The New York Times columnist David Brooks pointed out, "By choosing a story set in 1972, Spielberg allows himself to ignore the core poison that permeates the Middle East, Islamic radicalism. In Spielberg's Middle East, there is no Hamas or Islamic Jihad. There are no passionate anti- Semites, no Holocaust deniers like the current president of Iran, no zealots who want to exterminate Israel."

Avner's eventual loss of faith in Zionism could more plausibly be reckoned a psychological crisis. Cut off not only from his wife and newborn baby daughter but also from everyone except his fellow operatives, Avner is a cipher in torment. When his mother tells him that she is proud of what he is doing, when she says of Israel that "we have a place on earth at last," her words fall on deaf ears. (Spielberg is careful to include a Palestinian, Avner's counterpart, who also speaks passionately of a homeland.)

Relocated to Brooklyn with his wife and child, Avner can't even make love to his wife without flashing back in his mind to the commando horrors he has experienced. But of course soldiers can be traumatized even when convinced of the justness of their cause. Spielberg equates - and I would say, confuses - Avner's mental collapse with the collapse of his political ideals.

It doesn't help that Avner is a sketchily drawn character throughout; his dissolution lacks the metaphorical fullness that was obviously intended. When he says, "I have no idea where I should be," we stand apart from his sorrow because we have never really been placed inside his skin. For a film that professes to be about the human cost of politics, our lack of identification with him represents a crucial and finally insurmountable flaw. Grade: B

Rated R for strong graphic violence, some sexual content, nudity, and language.

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